Acreage set aside to safeguard rare flowering plants

Nearly 10,000 acres on scattered properties in Jackson and Josephine counties are being designated as critical habitat to protect two rare plant species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Following a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the agency today was scheduled to announce that 9,930 acres of critical habitat is being designated for the large-flowered woolly meadowfoam (Limnanthes floccosa ssp. grandiflora) and Cook's lomatium, also known as Cook's desert parsley (Lomatium cookii).

More than half the land being designated as critical habitat is in private ownership, with the rest largely on the Medford District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The woolly meadowfoam grows in the Agate Desert area near White City, while the desert parsley occurs both on the Agate Desert and the French Flat area of the Illinois Valley. Neither is found anywhere else in the world, according to a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.

Both species were federally listed as endangered plants in 2002. The agency in May 2000 had recommended the two rare species be protected under the Endangered Species Act, which requires critical habitat be designated for all federally listed species.

However, when the government failed to take steps to designate critical habitat for the rare plants, the Tucson-based center filed suit in 2007. In the settlement, the agency had until mid-summer of this year to designate the acreage needed to provide the plants' critical habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service a year ago proposed designating 11,038 acres of land as critical habitat for the plants but pared that amount down by 1,108 acres. Part of the rationale for that reduction was that the area inhabited by the two rare plant species overlaps, said agency spokeswoman Janet Lebson in Portland.

She confirmed the settlement announcing the 9,930 acres identified as critical habitat for the plants would be printed today in the Federal Register.

Roughly half of the proposed acreage already is protected from development as critical habitat for fairy shrimp, another protected species. Like the fairy shrimp, both rare plant species rely entirely on seasonal wetlands and vernal pools.

Both the center and the agency agree the rare plants are threatened by urban sprawl, off-road vehicle use, invasive non-native plants, mining, grazing and destruction of wetlands.

The state of Oregon already lists both plant species as endangered, but state law protects plants only on publicly owned lands.

The economic impact of the decision is unknown. When private land is listed as critical habitat, landowners have to consult with the agency only when they need federal funding or permits for activities that might affect the listed species, an agency spokesman said in an earlier interview. Areas also can be excluded from protection if the economic consequences outweigh the benefits of creating the critical habitat, he said.

"With protection of their vernal pool habitat, these rare Oregon plants have a chance at survival," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "But the designation falls short of providing enough habitat to recover the two plants, which is the primary goal of the Endangered Species Act."

The center had pushed for all rare plant locations and habitat to be included, she said.

"The purpose of critical habitat is to help species recover," Anderson said. "Critical habitat must be robust enough to include areas for the plants to move into, so that their number increase to levels where they are no longer threatened and endangered."

However, the identification of critical habitat for the rare species is a positive development, she stressed.

"Designating critical habitat will add a crucial layer of protection and promote the expansion and eventual recovery of these species," she said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at

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